25 Oil Painting Myths

So many oil painting myths are still going around. Do not use black, use a medium, oil paint is toxic; the list goes on and on.

In this article I try to demystify oil painting once and for all!

If you follow my blog you might already know it took me some years to come to oil painting. I was a happy pastel painter and although curious about oil paint, something was holding me back. I was a little afraid of it. There are so many rules; it is toxic; it is difficult; these are some of the thoughts I had when I considered oil painting. But when I finally did jump in, I found so many of my fears ungrounded.

But so many of the oil painting myths are still going round today. I hope to help demystify the art and craft of oil painting. Do leave a comment at the end of this blog post if you know of any more myths that need smashing up, or you are wondering about one yourself and you’re not sure if it is a myth or not! Questions and comments are very welcome.

25 Myths:

1. Oil painting is toxic

​Oil paints are not toxic. Well, most of the time they are not. Some colour pigments are toxic (check the label!) such as cadmium and cobalt. If you would rather not use toxic paints you have a huge choice in alternative non toxic colours and brands. More info on oil paint and toxicity here.

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2. Oil paint smells bad

​Oil paint has no smell. The unpleasant smell many people talk about comes from the solvent (turpentine or white spirit) many artists use. They clean their brushes during and after painting with toxic smelly solvents and their oil paint mediums often contains smelly stuff as well. If you just keep your solvent jars closed there should be no smell, or, you can use a low-odour solvent. Even better, do not use solvents at all and there will be no smell except a hint of lovely oils.

3. Oil painting is difficult

Painting is hard! But it is also great fun. Oil painting is no harder than painting with any other medium. So if you have been happy to dive into watercolour, or pastel or acrylics then you should expect the same level of difficulty in oils. You might just fall in love….

“Painting isn’t so difficult when you don’t know … But when you do … it’s quite a different matter!” Edgar Degas

​ 4. You need to use a medium

You don’t. You can use the oil paint straight from the tube. There is really no need to use mediums at all. Mediums are there for you if you want to change the characteristics of the tube paint. So if you find the tube paint too stiff, you can add a medium especially designed to enhance the flow, or if you find the tube paint too smooth and soft, you can add a medium designed to create texture.There are mediums for lots of different purposes. Some are for speeding up the drying process, some for adding gloss and some to create more fluidity. All mediums, however, add complexity to your painting process. Adding ingredients to your paint will naturally have an effect on how the paint behaves. While some of the effects are what you are after, there might be unwanted side effects, so experiment and find out what you prefer. And yes, it is fine to not use any medium at all. More on the fat-over-lean rule here More on mediums here

5. You need a lot of gear

You don’t need any more than with most other painting mediums. Paint, brushes and a support (a canvas for example). That’s it. Oh, and something to paint perhaps…. More info on how to get started in Oil Paint

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“I dream my painting and I paint my dream.” Vincent Van Gogh

6. You must use oil painting brushes

Oil painting brushes are especially designed to hold oil paint. They might work best but there is no rule that you cannot use other brushes or any other tool to make your mark. My favourite brush is officially a watercolour brush. More on Oil Paint brushes here

7. You must paint on canvas

Canvas is the most popular surface for oil painting but by no means the only one. You can paint on anything as long as it is primed (made suitable for oil painting). Have a look in any art supply store and there is an enormous choice of canvas, board, paper, wood, metal etc. More on oil painting supports here

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8. Don’t use black

I think it was the impressionists who came up with that one? Of course it is nonsense. You can use any colour you like. There is no reason to not use any colour unless it doesn’t provide you with what you are after. Many beginners forget that black is a very cool blue-ish tone that will not darken your colours very well. Instead it will grey them into a dullness you might not be after. There is nothing against using black, just know which colours you want on your palette and what they can do for you. More on my own palette choices here More on the use of black here

9. Water soluble oil paints are not really oil paints

Most artists and manufacturers consider water soluble oil paints as proper oil paints. They work the same, the feel almost the same and they are made by the same makers. The only difference is you can use water to dilute them and clean your brushes, which makes them very easy to use and you can keep things non-toxic.

10. You cannot mix water soluble and normal oil paints

Yes, you can. You can mix water soluble oil paints with normal oil paints. Just remember that if you add normal oil paint to your palette and painting you must also get rid of the water. Normal oil paint does not work with water (it would separate) and so if you mix the two types of paint you have to work as if you are working with traditional oil paints only.

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11. Student quality oil paint is a waste of money

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Some student ranges are incredibly cheap and so great for practising, or for artists that want to use a lot of paint and not spend a lot of money. But some student range oil paints are really very bad quality; they have very little pigment in them and lots of fillers, making it hard to put down any meaningful colour. They could have a strange consistency that takes some getting used to. Compare and do your research. More on oil painting brands here

12. Student quality oil paint is great

Some student quality oil paint is great, but some certainly is not. If you are just starting out in oil painting there is no point in learning to work with inferior materials.  It can add to frustration and disappointment, which would have been avoided with a better quality paint. Compare and research. More on oil painting brands here

“To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist.” Schumann

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13. Cadmium paints belong on your palette

Cadmium red and yellow are staple paints for many artists, and many beginners just assume it should be part of anybody’s palette. But they are toxic paints, expensive, and incredibly strongly pigmented. I don’t use cadmiums often for the latter reason. They are too strong for my paintings and I prefer more muted colours.

14. You have to work in layers

You don’t have to work in layers, while waiting for them to dry in between, in order to work with oil paints. You can work ‘alla prima’ or ‘wet in wet’; going for it in one go or one session. You can mix on the canvas, or scrape it off and start again. Because oil paint is relatively slow to dry your session can last a few days.  Also, if your paint has dried after you get back to it you can just continue, paint over it and keep going. We don’t all have to paint using old masters’ techniques!

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15. You have to make a drawing first

Making a drawing can help plan your painting and figure out potential problems (and solve them). But of course you can dive in with a brush straight away! Don’t let the white canvas scare you – grab a brush and go for it. No drawing required.

16. Oil paint takes forever to dry

Some oil paints, depending on colour and brand, take longer to dry than others. You will probably use most paints mixed with other colours, so in the end the drying will be fairly even. Depending on the weather and the conditions in your room, oil paint will take a few hours to a few days to dry.  Some artists love the fact that they can still manipulate the paint days after they started. Others would prefer to work in layers and want fast-drying paint. Trial and error will teach you which ones to avoid and which to use, depending on what you are after.

17. You cannot mix brands

You can mix all oil painting brands, even water soluble paints or resin based paints. They are all manufactured with this in mind. ​More on oil painting brands here

18. You cannot mix transparent and opaque paint

You can mix all types of oil paint. If you are interested in the transparent qualities of a particular colour then just be aware you might lose it if you mix it with an opaque paint.

19. Paint the darks first

Eh, why? Paint first whatever you like. Just be aware that if you paint wet-in-wet (no drying time in between) you cannot go over paint layers without changing that paint layer and mixing the colours in the process. Often that is how you can end up with ‘mud’. So go slow and consider your colour mixing carefully or be prepared to scrape paint off if it is not the right colour. Alternatively add paint to the existing wet layer to mix the colours on the canvas, in order to get the right result.

20. Paint the lights first

Eh, why? Paint first whatever you like. Painting your darks and lights first is a handy exercise to keep an eye on your values. If you paint your lightest light and your darkest dark first, then you know that everything else has to sit in between those two extremes.

21. Paint the background first

There are no rules to paint anything first or last. So painting your background first is not a rule you have to stick to. Often this method results in a disconnection between subject and background, but not always.

22. Paint the background last

Just as there is no rule to paint the background first, there is no rule to paint it last either. But it is worth keeping in mind the connection between the background and the subject (a reflected colour or light, a shadow, the contour and the edges) and I would imagine painting it all at the same time the best approach.

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Edgar Degas

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23. You have to work from Life

No you don’t. You can work from whatever you like as long as it is legal. (More on working with photography here and here)

24. Expensive paint is better quality

Just like with a lot of things in life good quality can cost money. But prices of oil paint brands vary by country and so even though W&N Artists Oils can be reasonably priced in the UK, it might not be if you live in India. Read up and try out. More on oil painting brands here

25. Oil Painting is old fashioned

Oil paint is just a way to an end. It is a medium to use in any way you like. There are other paints available that were not around 400 years ago but that does not make them any better, just different. Modern oil paints are constantly improved and they are nothing like what Rembrandt had on his palette. I personally don’t mind ‘old fashioned’ as long as it doesn’t hamper or block the new and innovative. There is nothing wrong with a sense of nostalgia, a bit of the past, and a sense of history. It often paves the way into a better future. Picture


Some further reading

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